Review of “The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789” by Joseph J. Ellis


Joseph Ellis has authored several entertaining books on the Founding Era of American History.  In this book, he hones in his focus to the period of 1783-1789 and makes two basic arguments.  The first is that this period constituted a second “American Revolution”:  1776 marked the declaration of independence from Britain, but the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1787 created a nation.  Or, as Ellis puts it at one point, the first event was a revolution, while the second was an evolution.

His second argument is that four men were central to this transition from a confederation of very independent-minded states to a nation of Americans:  namely, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison.  He further recognizes an essential supporting cast consisting of Robert Morris, Gouverneur Morris, and Thomas Jefferson.

Robert Morris

Robert Morris

The rest of this short but densely packed book expands his arguments, going back and forth among the activities of his main actors in this time period.  He does a good job of it, and of course the story is a good one in any event; these were extraordinary times, allowing for the principals to effect extraordinary results.

If I were to make any criticisms, they would be small and do not detract from the essence of the saga.  One is that Ellis tells us mostly what his quartet (and the other three – in truth, more of a septet) did to bring about the American “Evolution,” but not much about the contributions of others.  It took the efforts of many more people as well, any of whose contribution could be thought of as necessary, if not sufficient. In addition, Ellis downplays the importance of the critical external issues that catalyzed reaction and response, such as the British debt crisis and austerity measures that retarded the growth of the colonies – especially, the restriction of international trade.

Gouverneur Morris

Gouverneur Morris

A second criticism is that Ellis begins by claiming that Lincoln was “historically incorrect” by asserting, in the Gettysburg Address, that a new nation was brought forth in 1776.  Lincoln, a scholar of the Constitution as well as a consummate politician, knew exactly what he was doing by referencing the defining American document as that of 1776 instead of 1787; certainly one of his goals was to help shape the narrative understanding of the country’s formation; that is, the history that defined our collective identity as a people.

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

As legal scholar Robert M. Cover wrote:

No set of legal institutions or prescriptions exists apart from the narratives that locate it and give it meaning. For every constitution there is an epic, for each decalogue a scripture. Once understood in the context of the narratives that give it meaning, law becomes not merely a system of rules to be observed, but a world in which we live. . . . In this normative world, law and narrative are inseparably related. Every prescription is insistent in its demand to be located in discourse – to be supplied with history and destiny, beginning and end, explanation and purpose.”

Thus, Cover perspicaciously concluded:

Law may be viewed as a system of tension or a bridge linking a concept of a reality to an imagined alternative – that is, as a connective between two states of affairs, both of which can be represented in their normative significance only through the devices of narrative.”

More precisely, the Declaration set forth our normative goal, and the Constitution provided a legal and political framework by which it might fulfill its promises to get us to that ideal.

Third, Ellis pretty much dismisses the idea that the hoi polloi harbored any nationalist feelings, but doesn’t offer much support for this contention, and other scholars have argued otherwise.  Certainly Thomas Paine’s pamphlets, widely read throughout the colonies, repeatedly refer to “the American Cause,” stating, for example, in 1776, that “America will never be happy till she gets clear of foreign dominion.”   

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, contends Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Walter McDougall, “united most Americans in common hatred and fear of outside oppressors as well as inside dissenters.”  While it is not entirely clear, McDougall concedes, whether Paine helped create “American mass politics” or if it already existed for his pamphlets to have been so successful, the fact was, by 1776 one could appeal to an “American” consciousness to call men to arms.  And before the first year which is the start of Ellis’s book, French-born writer M. G. Jean de Crèvecœur was extolling the virtues of “this great American asylum [haven]” and asking, in his widely-read book of 1782:  “What then is the American, this new man?”

Nevertheless, Ellis tells a good story, especially if you are already aware of the wider context.  These were indeed, as Paine famously wrote, “the times that try men’s souls.”  Ellis allows that “the founders occupied a transitional moment in the history of Western civilization. . . ” In addition, and critically, because of the non-aristocratic structure of American society:

…this meant that politics in America was open to a whole class of talented men – women were still unimaginable as public figures – who would have languished in obscurity throughout Europe because they lacked the proper bloodlines and inherited wealth.”

And thanks to at least seven of these men, we came away from that time with a pretty good scaffolding for a future society.

Evaluation:  This pithy summary of the foundations of the Constitution is excellent.

Rating:  4/5

Hardback published by Alfred A. Knopf, 2015

Note:  I both read the book in hard copy, because I like to consult footnotes, and listened to it on CD.  I was surprised to discover that the emphases given by the narrator in the audio version helped me understand the meaning of the written words more fully.

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

The narrator, Robertson Dean, does a great job, especially in changing his voice to set off quotations, so that listeners can distinguish them from the rest of the text. 

Published unabridged on 7 CDs (8 1/2 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2015

June 29, 1949 – South Africa Bans Mixed-Race Marriages

On this day in history, the South African government passed The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act (to go into effect as of July 8, 1949), making marriages between whites and non-whites illegal. Even though between 1946 and the enactment of this law, only 75 mixed marriages had been recorded, compared with some 28,000 white marriages, the government felt the possibility was a sufficient threat and affront to legislate against it. In 1950 the law was amended to ban even sexual relations between white and black South Africans.

To facilitate enforcement the Population Registration Act of 1950 required South Africans to register as members of one of four racial groups as set out in the Population Registration Act of 1950. The four groups were White, Coloured, Indian and Black. Subsequent to the passing of this legislation, a number of people were arrested and charged for breaking its provisions.

The law also nullified interracial marriages of South Africans that occurred outside of the country.   

Although many members of the official United Party (South Africa’s ruling political party between 1934 and 1948) were against the law, none of them opposed the bill. Sam Kahn, a South African Communist Party member, strongly objected, describing the bill as “the immoral offspring of an illicit union between racial superstition and biological ignorance”. He was ignored, and moreover expelled from parliament in 1952 upon suspicion of operating with illegal Communist organizations.

The police raided homes of couples suspected of having mixed relationships, and couples found guilty were jailed. Although the blacks involved were given harsh sentences, the government was more lenient toward the whites. For example, one of the first people convicted of the immorality act was a Cape Dutch reformed minister who was caught having sex with a domestic worker in his garage. He was given a suspended sentence.

The law was eventually repealed in 1985 by the Immorality and Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Amendment Act that allowed inter-racial marriages and relationships.

When Nelson Mandela was inaugurated as President of South Africa in 1994, he said in his address:

Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.”

Nelson Mandela at his inauguration, May 10, 1994

Nelson Mandela at his inauguration, May 10, 1994


June 21, 1940 – Alabaman Black Man Lynched for Failing to Address White Cop as “Mr.”

On this day in history, Jesse Thornton, a 26-year-old black man, was attacked by a mob in Luverne, Alabama as he was being led to the city jail. Thornton and a few friends had been standing in front of the barbershop talking. As an officer came along, Thornton said, “There comes Doris Rhodes, boys.” Officer Rhodes overheard the remark, turned to Thornton and said, “What did you say?” Thornton tried to recover by claiming he said “Mr. Doris Rhodes.” The officer said, “No you didn’t Nigger.” He then struck Jesse with his black jack, knocked him to the ground, and arrested him.

A mob quickly gathered and Thornton tried to flee. The mob fired gunshots and threw bricks, bats, and stones. Thornton was felled by a bullet and the mob drove him off to a nearby swamp where he was shot again. Seven days later, a local fisherman found Thornton’s body eaten by vultures and buzzards in the Patsaliga River near Tuskegee Institute.


Meanwhile, after the killing, the mob kidnapped Thornton’s wife from her home during the night. They told her that she would face the same fate as her husband if she told anyone about the kidnapping. Following the kidnapping, she was so intimidated that she refused to speak to anyone in town, including black residents.

Thurgood Marshall, then an attorney with the NAACP, was contacted by the Birmingham branch of the NAACP. Marshall requested that the Department of Justice investigate. The Assistant Attorney General sent a memo to J. Edgar Hoover, then Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, requesting that the FBI investigate any officials that were complicit in Thornton’s lynching. Hoover’s FBI was not much interested in pursuing complaints about Civil Rights, however. It is uncertain if the FBI or Department of Justice ever took formal steps to prosecute anyone in connection to Thornton’s case.


800th Anniversary of Magna Carta

This month is the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta (it is proper to omit the “The”), or “Great Charter,” issued in 1215 (under pressure) by King John of England. Magna Carta remains the cornerstone of the British constitution, and has echoes in the U.S. Bill of Rights (1791), the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), and the European Convention on Human Rights (1950), inter alia.

At the British Library’s site dedicated to Magna Carta, you learn that although the original document contained 63 clauses, only three remain part of English law. One defends the liberties and rights of the English Church, another confirms the liberties and customs of London and other towns, and the third and most famous clause stipulates:

No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any other way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice.”

It should be noted that not all scholars revere this document. As Tom Ginsburg, Professor of International Law and Political Science at the University of Chicago recently argued, its fame rests of several myths (which he delineates), and its merits are often exaggerated. However, he explains:

Magna Carta has everything going for it to be venerated in the United States: It is old, it is English and, because no one has actually read the text, it is easy to invoke to fit current needs. A century ago, Samuel Gompers referred to the Clayton Act as a Magna Carta for labor; more recently the National Environmental Protection Act has been called an “environmental Magna Carta.” Judges, too, cite Magna Carta with increasing frequency, in cases ranging from Paula Jones’s suit against Bill Clinton to the pleas of Guantánamo detainees. Tea Party websites regularly invoke it in the battle against Obamacare.”

You can read the entire original text (in translation) here. You can watch an animated history of Magna Carta narrated by Monty Python’s Terry Jones here or a video by the UK Parliament by clicking on the video window shown below.

June 16, 1871 – The U.K. Repealed Prohibition on Religious Non-Conformists at Universities

On this day in history, the United Kingdom passed the University Tests Act, repealing a prohibition on non-conformists at the British Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Durham. The University Tests Act stated that persons at these universities would not be required to subscribe in any way to any article or formulary of faith to which they did not belong.

Beginning in the 17th Century, Britain had passed a series of laws enforcing adherence to the Church of England upon all persons filling public offices.

For example, The Corporation Act 1661 decreed that all mayors and officials in municipal corporations had to receive the sacrament of Holy Communion in accordance with the rites of the Church of England, inter alia. The Test Act 1673 made all holders of civil and military offices and places of trust under the Crown to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy and receive the Anglican sacrament. The oath for the Test Act of 1673 was:

I, N, do declare that I do believe that there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or in the elements of the bread and wine, at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever.”

The Catholic Relief Act of 1829 repealed the Test Act of 1673, permitting members of the Catholic Church to sit in the parliament at Westminster.but was accompanied by The Parliamentary Elections (Ireland) Act 1829 (10 Geo. IV, c. 8) which disenfranchised the minor landholders of Ireland, and raised fivefold the economic qualifications for voting.

William Gladstone

William Gladstone

The Universities Tests Act, passed during William Gladstone’s first ministry, was intended to win support from the non-conformists, who were a major component of the Liberal Party. In addition, the Act came as a response to the widely publicized case of Numa Edward Hartog, the first Senior Wranger in the history of Cambridge University. (The Senior Wrangler is the top mathematics undergraduate at Cambridge, a position once regarded as the greatest intellectual achievement attainable in Britain.) Hartog could not accept the fellowship that came with this honor, because he could not pass the religious test. His testimony before the House of Lords helped secure passage of the bill, after the Lords had twice blocked similar legislation in 1869 and 1870. Tragically, Hartog died of smallpox just three days after the act passed.

A student is named as Senior Wrangler in 1842, an accolade 'synonymous with academic supremacy'

A student is named as Senior Wrangler in 1842, an accolade ‘synonymous with academic supremacy’

You can read the text of the University Tests Act here.

June 12, 1776 – Virginia Unanimously Adopts The Declaration of Rights, Forerunner to the U.S. Declaration of Independence

On this day in history, at the Fifth Virginia Convention at Williamsburg, Virginia unanimously adopted The Declaration of Rights for the State of Virginia, which then appeared in the papers just as Jefferson was working on his draft of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The Virginia Declaration was mostly written by George Mason, a fourth generation Virginian. (James Madison assisted Mason with the section on religious freedom, and other members of the convention added small edits.)

George Mason

George Mason

Inspired by the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, among others, Mason asserted, “That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights….among which are the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.” 

This document was the first in America to call for freedom of the press, tolerance of religion, proscription of unreasonable searches, and the right to a fair and speedy trial.

In 1787, Mason attended the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia.  He was distressed over the amount of power being given to the federal government, the Convention’s unwillingness to abolish the slave trade, and its lack of acceptance of a bill of rights to preface the new Constitution. He therefore refused to sign the document. One of three dissenters, Mason’s lack of support for the new Constitution made him unpopular and destroyed his friendship with George Washington, who later referred to Mason as his former friend.

But Mason’s ideas were widely accepted, and at the first session of the U.S. Congress, James Madison introduced a Bill of Rights that echoed the Virginia Declaration.

You can read the full text of the Virginia Declaration of Rights here.

Review of “Infamy: The Shocking Story of The Japanese American Internment in World War II” by Richard Reeves


Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there was a great deal of anger and fear towards Japanese Americans.

Less than eight weeks later, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 (February 19, 1942) authorizing the Secretary of War and U.S. armed forces commanders to declare areas of the United States as military areas “from which any or all persons may be excluded,” although it did not name any nationality or ethnic group. It was eventually applied to one-third of the land area of the U.S. (mostly in the West) and was used against those with “Foreign Enemy Ancestry” — Japanese, Italians, and Germans. In March of 1942, the War Relocation Authority was created to: “Take all people of Japanese descent into custody, surround them with troops, prevent them from buying land, and return them to their former homes at the close of the war.”

Even before the Japanese-Americans were relocated, their livelihoods were seriously threatened when all accounts in American branches of Japanese banks were frozen.

On May 19, 1942, western Japanese Americans were forced to move into relocation camps by Civilian Restrictive Order No. 1, 8 Fed. Reg. 982.


More than 120,000 American Japanese were taken from their homes and put in ten “relocation centers” and several prisons in California, Utah, Arkansas, Arizona, Idaho, Colorado, and Wyoming. Three categories of internees were created: Nisei (native U.S. citizens of Japanese immigrant parents), Issei (Japanese immigrants), and Kibei (native U.S. citizens educated largely in Japan).

These Japanese Americans, half of whom were children, were incarcerated for up to 4 years, without due process of law or any factual basis, in bleak, remote camps surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards. Families were crammed into 20- by 25-foot rooms and forced to use communal bathrooms. No razors, scissors, or radios were allowed. Children attended War Relocation Authority schools. None of them were ever charged of any crime against the United States.

In desert camps, the evacuees met severe extremes of temperature. In winter it reached 35 degrees below zero, and summer brought temperatures as high as 115 degrees. Rattlesnakes and desert wildlife added danger to discomfort. At Gila, there were 7,700 people crowded into space designed for 5,000. They were housed in messhalls, recreation halls, and even latrines. As many as 25 persons lived in a space intended for four.” (Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.)

three boys_sm_jpg_490x999_upscale_q85

The Supreme Court delayed challenges to the mass incarceration until after the 1944 presidential election. Reeves quotes Assistant Secretary of War John J. McCloy in a memo declaring, “We can cover the legal situation . . . in spite of the Constitution. Why the Constitution is just a scrap of paper to me.”

It was not as if there were a great deal of sympathy for the Japanese in any event. Governor Chase Clark of Idaho declared: “The Japs live like rats, breed like rats and act like rats.” Nels Smith, Governor of Wyoming, told the Director of the War Relocation Authority, “If you bring Japanese into my state, I promise you they will be hanging from every tree.”

Reeves tells the story of the incarceration not only in terms of the officials who perpetrated the injustice or the heroes who fought against it, but also by relating the stories of the families themselves and what they endured. As he notes:

This is an American story of enduring themes: racism and greed, injustice and denial – and then soul-searching, an apology, and the most American of coping mechanisms, moving on.”

But in fact, few of the American Japanese affected by this process were able to return to their prewar lives. They had lost their money and property – losses were estimated by the government as more than $200 million in 1942 – as well as their jobs and their reputations.

A Japanese family returns home to find their garage vandalized with graffiti and broken windows in Seattle, May, 1945. AP Photo

A Japanese family returns home to find their garage vandalized with graffiti and broken windows in Seattle, May, 1945. AP Photo

Nevertheless, and importantly, Reeves emphasizes:

Through it all, the desert heat and windstorms and bitter cold, the breakdowns and suicides, the overwhelming majority of the Japanese aliens and Japanese Americans remained loyal to the United States.”

In Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944), the United States Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision concerning the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, ruled that the exclusion order was constitutional. The opinion, written by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, held that the need to protect against espionage outweighed Fred Korematsu’s individual rights, and the rights of Americans of Japanese descent.

Justice Frank Murphy dissented, saying that the exclusion of Japanese “falls into the ugly abyss of racism,” and compared the rationale for the Japanese exclusion to that supporting “the abhorrent and despicable treatment of minority groups by the dictatorial tyrannies which this nation is now pledged to destroy.” He also compared the treatment of Japanese Americans, on the one hand, with persons of German and Italian ancestry, on the other, as evidence that race, rather than the emergency alone, led to the exclusion order which Korematsu was convicted of violating.

Justice Frank Murphy

Justice Frank Murphy

His stirring closing paragraph reads:

I dissent, therefore, from this legalization of racism. Racial discrimination in any form and in any degree has no justifiable part whatever in our democratic way of life. It is unattractive in any setting, but it is utterly revolting among a free people who have embraced the principles set forth in the Constitution of the United States. All residents of this nation are kin in some way by blood or culture to a foreign land. Yet they are primarily and necessarily a part of the new and distinct civilization of the United States. They must, accordingly, be treated at all times as the heirs of the American experiment, and as entitled to all the rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution.”

On December 17, 1944, Public Proclamation No. 21, effective January 2, 1945, allowed evacuees to return home, just ahead of two new Supreme Court decisions finding that citizens should be allowed to go home after proving their loyalty.

In order to rejoin society, each individual received a $25 payment and transportation tickets at the time of release.

In 1982, law professor Peter Irons found that the Justice Department had withheld or destroyed evidence before the Korematsu case reached the Supreme Court. He assembled a team of Japanese american lawyers who successfully petitioned for the dismissal of charges against Korematsu forty years before by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

In 1990, reparations were made to surviving internees and their heirs in the form of a formal apology by the U.S. government and a check for $20,000.

Evaluation: This is an important story about which too many Americans are unaware. In addition, as Reeves quotes one veteran and local historian,

This is a great nation, and we’ve done many wonderful things. … This isn’t one of them, and we always need to be mindful of how we treat and how we interact with each other.”

Rating: 4/5

Published by Henry Holt and Company, 2015


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